Leaders with Justice Matters announced Monday they will start a legally binding petition drive to get on the November ballot an alternative to the $11 million behavioral health campus Douglas County has proposed.
If successful, the petition drive will ask county voters to approve a 3.5 mill levy increase to help fund the development of a crisis center and its operation, said Ben MacConnell, Justice Matters lead organizer. Using 2017 assessment figures, the mill levy would raise an estimated $4.2 million. It is proposed the tax would sunset in 10 years, unless approved again by voters.
A 3.5 mill levy would mean an annual tax increase of $70.43 on a $175,000 home.
MacConnell acknowledged the proposal was presented as an alternative to Douglas County’s ballot initiative, which asks county voters to approve an additional half cent of sales tax authority. The proposed sales tax would raise an estimated $9.8 million per year to fund the $44 million expansion of the county jail, an $11 million behavioral health campus and $5.1 million in additional behavioral health services. That election, which will be conducted by mail-in ballots, begins on April 24 and ends on May 15.
The results of the sales tax election likely will be known before Justice Matters is able to complete its petition drive. Organizers, however, said they are confident they'll get the needed signatures.
Last month, Justice Matters announced its opposition to the jail expansion and to linking its funding with the behavioral health initiatives. The group now will use the possibility of a mental-health only tax as a reason people who don't support the jail but do support mental health initiatives should vote no on the upcoming sales tax election.
"This is a way of providing a needed service without feeling like they have to support the jail expansion," Rose Schmidt, co-president of Justice Matters, said of the plan that was shared with the organization's membership Monday evening at its annual solutions briefing.
Group leaders on Monday also sent a different message about the county's behavioral health proposal, which it largely has supported thus far. On Monday, they said the county's plan was "workable," but they think they have developed a better plan.
“Since we are starting over, let’s look at all the possibilities,” Schmidt said.
The property tax would raise less money for behavioral health than the county sales tax proposal, but it wasn’t intended to develop a crisis center as big as that in the county plan, MacConnell said. Justice Matters also proposes an existing building be renovated to serve as a crisis center as a cost-saving measure.
Furthermore, the $4.2 million in annual revenue county voters approved should be seen as a down payment on a crisis center that would attract other partners benefiting from such a facility, MacConnell said.
Justice Matters’ proposal would offer emergency mental health intervention on a regional scope, unlike the county plan, MacConnell said. It would make available psychiatric emergency care for patients from Franklin, Jefferson and Miami counties, which do not currently have that option available for their residents. The Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services encourages the regional approach to mental health crisis centers, and it has made grants available to centers being developed in Saline and Riley counties, he said.
Lawrence Memorial Hospital should also be asked to contribute to the capital cost of the crisis center because it would save money when it no longer had to provide psychiatric care in its emergency room, MacConnell said.
Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said it was difficult to comment on a proposal that asked much of the county but was never presented to commissioners. However, the math in the proposal appeared to greatly reduce the scope of the county plan, she said.
“It sounds like Justice Matters is only interested in a crisis center, so maybe that’s why,” she said. “But if a crisis center is all you do, then you’re just creating another revolving door. The county’s plan is more comprehensive, going beyond crisis care to prevention, recovery and even special housing.”
The county’s plan was developed after years of study and with the involvement of LMH and behavioral health partners Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, DCCCA, Heartland Community Health Center and Heartland Regional Alcohol and Drug Assessment Center, Thellman said. Justice Matters members praised the county's behavioral health ballot initiatives when they were presented earlier this year, she said.
“I guess Justice Matters’ inability to get past their distaste for an expanded county jail is what’s driving this,” she said. “The county’s plan is well-vetted, comprehensive and right-sized for the community. Ultimately, it will be up to folks in Douglas County to say who they want leading the way on this — the County Commission or Justice Matters.”
Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said the reliance on contributions from other counties to help with the crisis center was premature and speculative. County commissions in those counties faced the same conflicting budget priorities and tax lid constraints that the Douglas County Commission has confronted, and there was no guarantee they would agree to any arrangement. At the very least, the Justice Matters plan would delay the opening of any crisis center as other counties went through the same lengthy review processes as Douglas County commissioners undertook in developing their plan, he said.
Justice Matters intends to launch its petition drive at its annual Nehemiah Action Assembly on April 21.
Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew said Justice Matters would have 180 days to get signatures of at least 4,000 registered voters once the first registered voter signed the petition. Shew said he advises those starting petition drives to get about 20 percent more than that, because his office usually discovers 15 to 20 percent of those signing petitions are not registered to vote in the county.
Petitions are presented to the county counselor to review and then presented to the County Commission, which will have 90 days to schedule a special election or put the question on a scheduled primary or general election, Shew said. County commissioners could schedule the referendum for the Nov. 6 special election or during a special election date of its choice.
If started April 21, Justice Matters would have until Oct. 8. to get the required number of signatures. However, to get the question on the ballot for the Nov. 6 general election, ballot language would have to be presented to the County Clerk’s office by early September, Shew said.
More coverage: Douglas County votes on jail expansion, behavioral health campus• April 17, 2018 — Average daily population at Douglas County Jail fell slightly in 2017 to reverse 5-year trend
• April 17 — Douglas County counselor: Meeting with Justice Matters about proposed petition would not be appropriate
• April 17 — Despite campaign literature to the contrary, county officials confirm there’s no legal finding that Douglas County Jail must be expanded
• April 16 — Douglas County legal counselor finds proposed Justice Matters petition legally invalid, but group says it can be fixed
• April 16 — What you will see and hear on a Douglas County Jail tour
• April 15 — Speakers at criminal justice, behavioral health forum look beyond jail expansion, crisis center
• April 14 — County-funded training expands number of peer-support specialists to share ‘been there, got better’ message
• April 11 — Criminal justice group’s spokeswoman says expanding Douglas County Jail would contribute to nation’s mass incarceration problem
• April 9 — Douglas County Commission may be forced to put new mental health, tax plan on November ballot
• March 25 — Increasing population at Douglas County jail at odds with national trend
• March 22 — Advocacy group forms to support county referendum on jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives
• March 21 — Douglas County District Court chief judge defends court’s processes, agrees serious felony crime is increasing
• March 12 — County’s pretrial release, home-arrest programs diverting large numbers from jail, but not enough to prevent overcrowding
• March 11 — DA was more likely to grant a diversion in 2017, but number of people seeking them declined
• March 6 — Douglas County Sheriff’s Office offering jail tours, presentations in advance of spring referendum
• March 5 — Online behavioral health care site available free to county residents pending referendum outcome
• March 4 — Felonies, not pot smoking, filling up the Douglas County Jail, new report says
• March 3 — Activist groups kick off their campaign against jail expansion
• March 1 — Town Talk: Here comes the opposition: Four groups join forces to campaign against Douglas County jail expansion
• Feb. 21 — Douglas County will face tough choices on jail expansion if tax referendum fails, official says
• Feb. 20 — Building jail expansion in phases would take 16 years, $6M to $8M a year, county says
• Feb. 19 — Town Talk: Fact checking county commissioners on assertion that big budget cuts will come if voters reject jail/mental health sales tax
• Feb. 17 — Activist leaders blast proposed expansion of Douglas County Jail
• Feb. 12 — As voters consider $44M expansion, report finds some changes could reduce overcrowding at Douglas County Jail
• Feb. 7 — Douglas County Commission to schedule forums on jail and mental health referendum, provide information on what happens if voters reject
• Feb. 4 — Johnson County built a larger jail and now has 300 unused beds; Douglas County can't use them
• Jan. 30 — State law won't allow Douglas County commissioners to campaign for passage of jail, mental health sales tax
• Jan. 24 — Douglas County Commission approves language for ballot question on jail expansion, behavioral health campus
• Jan. 22 — Following the money: Douglas County partners beefing up behavioral health services with funding
• Jan. 17 — Douglas County Commission agrees to put jail expansion, behavioral health campus on same ballot question
• Jan. 16 — Town Talk: Many residents want to vote separately on jail, mental health projects; there's a way, but county unlikely to go there
• Jan. 16 — Douglas County commissioners ready to ask voters to approve jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives
• Jan. 15 — 2014 speedy trial redefinition clogging Douglas County jail, district court
• Jan. 10 — Price tag of behavioral health campus, services estimated at $5.76 million annually
• Jan. 8 — No insurance and hooked on drugs? Chances are, you won't find treatment in Douglas County
• Jan. 5 — Town Talk: A look at how high Lawrence's sales tax rate would be if voters approve increase for jail, mental health
• Jan. 3, 2018 — Due to misunderstanding, county now says jail expansion, mental health projects must be on same sales tax ballot
• Dec. 31, 2017 — Undersheriff says 2016 annual report shows overcrowding threatening jail safety, re-entry programming
• Dec. 18 — Behavioral health campus plan grew from recognition of housing's role in crisis recovery
• Dec. 13 — Services that will be part of behavioral health campus to be introduced next month at LMH
• Dec. 13 — Douglas County commissioners confident of voter buy-in on jail expansion plan
• Nov. 30 — Douglas County commission agrees to move ahead with $44 million jail expansion design
• Nov. 26 — Sheriff's Office exploring modular units as stopgap solution to Douglas County Jail overcrowding
• Nov. 8 — Douglas County Sheriff's Office recommends jail redesign that would more than double number of beds
• Oct. 4 — Jail expansion, crisis center would require public vote on new taxes, officials say
• Sept. 20 — Estimated cost to expand Douglas County Jail jumps by millions of dollars
• July 26 — Douglas County Commission to forward report on future jail population to architects
• July 16 — Double bunking not considered solution for Douglas County Jail overcrowding
• June 26 — Jail, mental health initiatives help drive proposed tax increase in 2018 county budget
• May 14 — Douglas County data showing swelling jail population despite fewer arrests
• April 5, 2017 — Sheriff urges Douglas County Commission to make jail expansion a priority